Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 45

The Book of the Impostors

Demons, as we know, was initially begun as a “pamphlet-novel” in which Dostoevsky would unleash all his satirical fury against the Nihilists. It is thus not surprising that, of all his major works, it contains the greatest proportion of satirical caricature and ideological parody. This becomes immediately apparent in the rhetoric of the narrator's account of Stepan Trofimovich's career, which both exalts and deflates him at the same time. Since the narrator feels a genuine sympathy for Stepan Trofimovich, he begins by delineating the exalted and ennobling image that the eminent worthy has of himself. But he immediately undermines it by revealing the completely exaggerated, even illusory nature of many of the poses that his subject strikes (as a supposed “political exile,” for instance, who was not an exile at all, or as a noted scholar whose “notoriety” was mainly fictitious). “Yet Stepan Trofimovich was a most intelligent and gifted man,” the narrator affirms, “even, so to say, a man of science … well in fact he had not done such great things in science. I believe indeed that he had done nothing at all. But that's very often the case, of course, with men of science among us in Russia” (10: 8).

In fact, recalls the narrator, a famous article written by Stepan Trofimovich contained “the beginning of a very profound investigation into the causes, I believe, of the extraordinary moral nobility of certain knights at a certain epoch or something of that nature” (10: 9). This choice of subject defines the sublime elevation of Stepan Trofimovich's own ideals, which are also illustrated by the chronicler's account of Stepan Trofimovich's prose poem, written sometime in the 1830s. Described as “some sort of allegory in lyrical-dramatic form” (10:9), the poem parodies Vladimir Pecherin's The Triumph of Death and is the first announcement of the book's dominating symbolism:

Then a youth of indescribable beauty rides in on a black steed, and an im-
mense multitude of all nations follow him. The youth represents death for
whom all the peoples are yearning. And finally, in the last scene we are
suddenly shown the Tower of Babel, and certain athletes at last finish
building it with a song of new hope, and when at length they complete
the topmost pinnacle, the lord (of Olympus, let us say) takes flight in a

-650-

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